WASHINGTON -- Defense Department officials are proposing to trim the production schedule of two new fighter aircraft -- the FA-18 E/F Super Hornet and the F-22 Raptor -- to save money for other weapons, Pentagon sources said yesterday.
The production rate for the Navy's FA-18 E/F, which accounts for about 400 high-paying engineering and scientific jobs in Maryland, could slow by more than a dozen planes per year over the coming years, the sources said.
The Maryland jobs are not at risk, one Navy official said, because they are tied to a testing program at Patuxent River Naval Air Station that will continue for two more years regardless of the number of airplanes built.
"As long as there is a Super Hornet program there will be the testing and evaluation process which is going on at Pax River right now," the official said.
Meanwhile, the number of F-22s the Air Force buys each year is expected to decline. Currently, the Air Force plans to reach a rate of 48 planes a year by 2004. Officials are uncertain how much that number will be reduced. "There are going to be some adjustments to the original request," said one defense official.
Bethesda's Lockheed Martin Corp., which builds the F-22 in Georgia with parts made at a plant in Texas and by Boeing Co. in Seattle, is counting on any cuts coming late in the program.
"So far as we can tell at this point, the effect would be in the distant future," said company spokesman James Fetig, who added that Lockheed Martin officials "haven't been given any official notification" of what numbers to expect.
The Pentagon now plans to build about 785 fighters for the Navy, down from the original 1,000, while the Air Force hopes to pick up 339 F-22s, down from 438 originally planned, sources said.
Readjustments are unknown
Defense officials had no immediate figures on the proposed reduced production rate. Current plans call for 10 FA-18 E/Fs this year, and in each of the subsequent years there would be 20, 30 and then 48. With the F-22, two are expected in 1999, with the number rising to 48 by 2004.
An Air Force spokeswoman, Capt. Kathleen Cook, would not comment on the possible decrease in the F-22 production schedule. "Those are details I'm not privy to," she said.
"The Navy has no details for release at this time," a Navy spokesman said.
One Pentagon official said there is concern about the additional costs that would be associated with such a move. "What you're concerned with is price when you slow down the production rate," the official said. "The price per plane goes up."
The F-22 program has been beset with reports of potential cost overruns on its already-steep price of $71 million per plane. Lockheed Martin has signed agreements with the Pentagon to eliminate and absorb any overruns, but Fetig pointed out that that was based on original production rates.
He said officials have heard no warning that production rates could fall, and acknowledged that such a slip is the kind of thing that drives up costs. So far, the company has considered scenarios where the Pentagon simply buys fewer planes in the later years of the contract -- from 2009 through 2011, Fetig said.
Lockheed Martin plans to hire about 2,400 workers at its plant in Marietta, Ga., by the time production reaches a peak of about 48 planes per year in 2004; those new hires would be in jeopardy if production slows, Fetig said.
Officials at the Northrop Grumman Corp. plant in Linthicum, which builds radar for the F-22, said they are relatively unconcerned about the impact of any possible cuts because the technology being developed for the program can be applied to other future projects.
The reductions are part of a wide-ranging Pentagon review of defense needs and strategy for the coming years. Defense Department officials will circulate it to Congress later this week. Public release is scheduled for May 19.
Besides cutbacks in fighter aircraft, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen is expected to trim between 150,000 and 175,000 personnel -- active duty, civilian, reserve and National Guard -- and launch perhaps two rounds of base closings to pay for modernizing and new weapons purchases.
One weapons system that is expected to receive more money is the V-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor aircraft that will replace the aging CH-46 helicopters. The number of Ospreys would be increased for use in peacekeeping and low-intensity conflicts.
"The thinking is this equipment is needed now," said one Defense official.
Currently, the Marines plan to buy 25 of the aircraft over the next four years. Officials had no immediate specifics on the number or timetable for the added Ospreys.
The first Bell-Boeing V-22 built to production standards was recently flown from Bell Helicopter Textron's Flight Research Center in Arlington, Texas, to Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
Military aircraft expert Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the defense consulting firm the Teal Group, said he thought that the V-22 would benefit from a boost in production.
"It's probably not efficient to procure at current rates," he said.
The aircraft had a troubled early history -- two prototypes crashed, seven crew members died and the Pentagon tried twice to eliminate the program -- but the V-22 is now widely supported in Congress.
The two fighter plane programs, along with a future craft called the Joint Strike Fighter, are beset with critics because of high costs and are destined for cuts, Aboulafia said.
The process promises to be tricky. Because of inter-service rivalry, if the Pentagon recommends cutting one program more than the other, "there will be hell to pay," Aboulafia said.
Pub Date: 5/13/97